I’ve been writing for public audiences since 2007, when I starting writing posts for the Religion in American History Blog. I was a graduate student, who felt a little–or maybe a lot–stifled by the academic styles of writing that focused engaging a specialized audience, other experts. I was writing a dissertation that I hoped spoke to experts and larger audiences while not sure if it actually was.
So, I started blogging because I wanted to write something that my mom could/would read. (Spoiler alert: My mom has read very, very few of my articles, posts, or essays. She might have only read one, maybe two tops. She won’t admit it. I won’t ask her about it.)
I wanted to write something that more people would read, so I wrote shorter (around 1000 words) posts, in which I experimented with style and tone alongside presenting ideas from my dissertation research to folks beyond my committee. I was writing about white supremacy, nationalism, and faith. I wanted an audience beyond my adviser, committee, and peers in my grad program. I wanted my research to move beyond the bounds of a dissertation into the public sphere.
Frankly, I wanted to write articles that more people would read. (Yes, there was an activist impulse to research. No, I didn’t care that some academics derided activism.)
What I didn’t know then was that I was paving the way to being both a freelance writer and a public scholar, a scholar who writes specifically to and for a public. (And, readers, there are many publics not just one. More of that in a moment.)
12 years later, not only do I continue to write for broader audiences in op-eds, articles in online magazines and in print, and trade books, but I’m also an editor who evaluates pitches and articles written by freelancers and academics, every single month. (Also, here’s an article on how to craft a pitch.)
But, what I want to bring attention to today are three most common mistakes I see as an editor in work for public audiences. The first is the reliance on jargon. The second is hedging one’s arguments. The third is a lack of a clear, easy-to-follow argument.
Learn to Rely Less on Jargon
Scholars are trained to write for a specialized audience, composed of experts like themselves, in their different disciplines. There are particular terms of engagement. There’s theory. There’s method. There are concepts, which have been defined, contested, redefined, and defined again. There’s jargon, lots of jargon. If you want to write for public audiences, one of the very first steps is to get rid of jargon that’s going to prevent a non-specialist reader from fully engaging what you want to argue.
I know you like jargon because it is useful and meaningful. That’s okay. Continue to use jargon if it gets your point across in scholarship to other scholars.
But, in public writing, jargon distracts rather than helps. So, here’s what I suggest if you’re having a hard time removing jargon-laden sentences from your op-ed or article or blog post or essay. Write the sentence as you normally would, as if you are talking to your peers. And then, write the sentence again. But, this time, I want you to define each specialized term that you use with an easier to understand word. Check and make sure the sentence still makes sense. If not, take another go at. Get that sentence down to the essence of what you mean, not sacrificing complexity, but instead aiming for clarity and readability.
Now, sometimes, you’ll really need to use a specialized term, like white supremacy or structural racism, in your public work. That’s okay too. You can rely on some of these specialized terms because your audience needs to understand what they mean to understand what you want to argue. So, here’s what you do: You use the term, and then, you define it in a sentence at most. Explain what this term means to the reader with in clear, concise prose.
If it helps, imagine your readers as your students. (Students are one of your publics.) They come into your class with some knowledge of a topic, maybe only a little, or perhaps, none at all. It’s your job to teach them about your particular topic, so you have to introduce key terms in your discipline and give them definitions that they can understand. Walk them through these concepts slowly. Break them down, and circle back if you need to. Some repetition goes a long way to making an argument stick.
The goal is to engage your reader and help them understand, so limit the jargon that prevents engagement and understanding.
Okay, I know this one might be harder to hear, but I am going to tackle it anyway. When you write for a public audience, you need to stop hedging your arguments. You know what hedging means, don’t you? It’s all those qualifications of our arguments that scholars make before we get to our arguments.
Listen, I am guilty of hedging in my scholarship. Heck, I’m guilty of hedging when explaining my research to my kids. If I start with “what you need to know before I say what I’m going to say…,” my ten-year-old sighs and dramatically rolls her eyes. Neither kid wants to hear me qualify what I’m explaining. They want me to get to the point right now (please and thank you!) because there’s too many more interesting things in the world to catch their attention. If I want them to pay attention to me explaining white supremacy (and they should pay attention), I have to get to the point. Quickly.
So, STOP HEDGING. Instead, tell us what you want to say in clear, precise language. The end.
(Okay, so maybe, that’s not really the end.)
What I want you to know is that my public writing became significantly better when an editor told me to “get to the point” of my argument quickly and clearly. They noted that academics usually build to what they are arguing gradually, building the evidence to say what they want to say. That, however, wasn’t how journalism or opinion pieces worked. My argument, my point, needed to be in the first paragraph. No excuses.
That editor, then, nuked my entire introduction that I pored over again and again because I was hedging. I was building up to what I wanted to say. The editor made me revise because there wasn’t time or space for hedging in an article that was only 800 words. The whole experience blew my mind and radically changed how I approached my public writing. It’s advice that I continue to share with folks who write for me or folks who talk to be about writing for a broader audience than their peers.
Clear and Concise Arguments
So, I’ve told you to get rid of (or at least, limit) your jargon and not to hedge your arguments. This might be the most important point: Make your argument as clear and concise as possible.
I’ve read a lot of pitches and articles over the years, and I’m here to tell you that the best thing you can do in a piece of public writing is to make your argument obvious and easy-to-follow. A good editor can help you refine your argument to engage readers, but you have to be able to articulate your argument, provide evidence for it, and show readers why it matters in clear prose. If an editor can’t follow your argument, a reader probably won’t be able to either.
Now at this point, some of y’all are probably like, “Kelly, I will not dumb down my brilliance or the complexity of my work just for the public to read me!” When I tweeted about the importance of clear and concise arguments on Twitter, I received many versions of this response as well as “The public needs to be smart enough to understand ME” or “My work, dear girl, is too complex for a public audiences to understand.” None of these responses are helpful. Nor are they accurate.
I’m going to say this loudly for all of y’all in the back: WRITING A CLEAR ARGUMENT IS NOT THE SAME AS “DUMBING DOWN.” Clarity doesn’t equal simplicity. And clarity also doesn’t equal dumb. Quit saying silly stuff like this. Neither is true, so cut it out. Clarity doesn’t somehow remove complexity and nuance. It really doesn’t.
Clear, concise arguments can also be complex. Also, hedging doesn’t automatically equal nuance or complexity either. It’s a skill to present complicated ideas and nuanced arguments in easy-to-read prose with a firm word limit. It’s a serious skill that takes practice, so much practice, to get it right.
Again, think of how you teach your students. Think of how you have to break down things into their component parts to build them back up. Think about how you have to attempt to explain a hard concept. Think about how maybe that explanation doesn’t land so you have to try again. Think of the analogies you rely on in class to make complex ideas understandable.
Clear and concise can also be complex. Remember that.
So, here’s the thing: Public audiences are smart, but they aren’t specialists like scholars are. What this means is that scholars have an opportunity to communicate what they’ve learned to a new but different audience than they are used to. Take that opportunity. Write for different public, maybe a larger one. Engage with the audiences you want to.
Keep in mind that audiences aren’t static. Writing for a public audience can mean vastly different things depending on who you want your audience to be and where you publish. There are many publics, which requires many approaches to public writing. There’s not one way to do this. You can figure out how to do public work in ways that make sense to and for you.